Spring Edition, Volume 1, Issue 3: Reclaiming Oklahoma History Untold Stories from the African American Experience

The African American experience is part and parcel of American history: One cannot fully appreciate the latter without a basic understanding of the former. When we make history inclusive: we fulfill our truth-telling obligation; we enrich, enliven, and
expand our dialogue; and we make history come alive.
I relish the opportunity to help reclaim Oklahoma history by sharing little-known stories from the African American experience. One compelling saga centers on a remarkable couple.
At the turn of the twentieth century, African-Americans fared poorly on virtually every conceivable gauge of general well-being. George and Lena Sawner of Chandler, Oklahoma, however, stood in stark relief to that grim assessment of black life.
The Sawners excelled in their respective spheres: George Sawner, an attorney, teacher, property owner, cotton broker, and social justice advocate; Lena Sawner, a master teacher, school principal, and community activist. Educated, professional, and
economically stable—well off by most standards—the Sawners lived the American dream. They owned a home, rental property, stocks, businesses, and two
cars. They hobnobbed with local, state, and national dignitaries. They vacationed in places like Montreal, Canada. They claimed the social, political, and
economic accoutrements commensurate with their status and vast circles of influence.
Still, the Sawners never forgot who they were and from whence they had come. Oklahoma would not let them.
Despite their undeniable achievements, the Sawners, like other African Americans in Oklahoma, often swam against the current, regularly battling waves of bigotry and intolerance. The political waters in Oklahoma, particularly as they spilled over racial
matters, became as brackish as those in the Jim Crow South. Stroking against an unceasing flow of racism, the Sawners managed to tame the tide.
George and Lena Sawner blazed trails along the Oklahoma prairie others thought off-limits. These early twentieth century pioneers and pathfinders laid the foundation and paved the way for future generations and countless individuals who, sadly,
may never know the Sawner name.
Together and separately, the Sawners enhanced the lives and improved the fortunes of
Oklahomans then and now. They merit mention among the pantheon of heroes who called Oklahoma home and elevated the state to national prominence.
We celebrate icons, those relative few exceptional individuals who somehow capture our collective imagination. We too often forget the crafty cragsmen like Mr. and Mrs. Sawner—the men and women who chip away at society’s jagged edges so that future 
generations experience a smoother climb up a less steep hill.
Now is the time to correct the historical record. Now is the time to embrace all those who contributed mightily to who and what we are today. Now is the time to reclaim Oklahoma history.

Hannibal B. Johnson, Esq., a graduate of Harvard Law School, is an attorney, author, consultant, and college professor. Johnson’s broad community engagement includes his service as chair the board of directors of the Foundation for Tulsa Schools and a
member of the Oklahoma Advisory Council to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. His forthcoming book, The Sawners of Chandler: A Pioneering Power Couple in Pre-Civil Rights Oklahoma, details the life and times of George and Lena Sawner

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published